Learning Out Loud

A brave new world...

Learning How to Learn – Setting the Stage

I am not one to throw my thoughts out into the universe with any sort of regularity (just check out my Facebook or Twitter accounts to validate). As a member of the MSLOC 430 Spring 2016 cohort, I decided it was time to test the assumption that I wouldn’t enjoy this very public reflection process. The opportunity to test assumptions and rise to Jeff Merrell’s challenge brings us to this, my first post. I will explore the background of where my brain has been living for the last few weeks with regard to: 1) the profile of workers that organizations need to accommodate, 2) the concept of self-directed learning, and 3) a quick preview into what’s coming down the pipe in future installments.

The background – The knowledge worker

Knowledge Worker

As the People Operations person in a start-up tech company, I am endlessly curious about how humans can improve their ability to collaborate, learn, and perform while feeling happy and engaged in their work. While people like Peter Drucker foreshadowed the concept of the knowledge worker over 15 years ago, I get the sense that many organizations are still struggling to adapt their L&D functions to accommodate this population. Robert Kelley from Carnegie Mellon shares that the percentage of knowledge one needs to memorize in order to effectively do their job is shrinking. Knowing how to get the answers you need is more important than storing information in your head. This is increasingly true given how quickly knowledge evolves and develops in our increasingly connected world.

Harold Jarche writes about transitioning from the market economy to the network economy – away from best practices and the need for predictability and instead utilizing the intelligence of our networks to solve problems together. He also posits that the only way to manage in a complex environment is for an organization to give up control. What does that mean, to give up control?

Melinda Turnley asked a great question in our class discussion thread, “If staff (rather than traditional L&D functions or management) have more control over their own development, what does this mean for how they are evaluated and how the organization measures success?” I believe it is important to measure the effectiveness of any initiative, but I am not convinced we can measure learning or knowledge in the traditional sense (i.e. Did s/he complete this training? Can they perform a route task quickly/more efficiently?) The ability to learn and develop is becoming an intangible benefit that the knowledge worker requires to feel engaged in their work. The ability to continuously learn and adapt is also a necessary condition for employees to deliver value to modern organizations. I wonder if the unit of measure would be 1) employee’s levels of self-efficaciousness with regard to their roles and 2) how their managers/organizations assess their ability to deliver value in their roles. This could be a whole different blog post, so I’ll get us back on track here.

Where were we? Ah, yes. We were talking about giving up control which led me to think about autonomy more broadly. A 2014 HBR article references Drucker’s work which urges organizations to embrace employee autonomy as a means to empowering knowledge workers. There is also reference to Hagel’s article on “scalable learning” and the notion of “creation spaces” that can help facilitate (vs. limit) interactions and relationships that allow organizations to increase internal information flow to facilitate learning, adaptability and innovation. These topics, Melinda’s question, the evolution of our network economy, and the arrival of the knowledge worker seem to be pointing us in this direction of individualization at scale. Organizations can’t afford to move slowly but they also can’t build individual cirriculums or trainings in the traditional classroom/module format. All the signs seem to be pointing in the direction of self-directed learning.

Self-directed learning – What is it and why should you care?

Indvidualized learning

I am fascinated by the concept of self-directed learning and how organizations can support this process. Suren Ramasubbu shared the accepted definition of self-directed learning as a, “process in which individuals take the initiative with or without the help of others in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.” Can you imagine a world in which all of your employees did this naturally? I hear this referred to as pulling information from the world rather than having people push information at you. I think this could be the secret sauce of the modern, competitive Talent/L&D function.

By helping employees focus on learning how to learn, we can meet the development demands of the knowledge worker, adapt to the network economy, and meet the demands of a constantly evolving world.  People in roles such as mine can support individuals’ personal learning journeys through a variety of means whether it is coaching, technology, routines, or other mechanisms.

So What?

Now that I have shared where my head has been these past few months, I can share a little insight into where I am headed (I hope!) In the next installments of Learning Out Loud, I will explore this concept of self-directed learning through two lenses: 1) the individual lens by doing a deep dive into a Personal Learning Environment (PLE) to explore what makes a comprehensive self-directed learning ecosystem and 2) the organizational lens by sharing thought-leadership about the types of L&D investments that could support this individualized, self-directed approach to learning in the workplace.


  1. I can definitely envision a world where the next generation entering the workforce is of the “pulling information from the world”. I just recalled a memory of stopping my aunt’s house and seeing my 8 year old cousin watching this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Drj9-2DPBw4. My mind was blown away because I could even begin to fathom how her experience of learning is radically different than mine (being enrolled in an art class is what I think of and how my mom would always be stressed that I wouldn’t get there in time because of traffic) and also the fact that it was a child who is narrating the video (not an adult teaching). Before we know it, both of them are going to be working, and I am positive they will be self-directed learners.

  2. Great post. I am a not a large advocate on large scale instructor led training in organizations. For explicit knowledge, okay. But to really learn and learn how to learn, that is a culture and leadership initiative.

    I look at my children and how they learn. They collaborate, they use available resources, and they chunk up their leanings. They pivot from one subject to another. Similar to what we do at work as well.

    In order to succeed in self directed learning:
    1. An organization needs to give employees the time to learn.
    2. They need to know who knows what.
    3. They need to remove the barriers that this is your job, and this is my job. There are so many control and power issues I see when people try to learn new skills.
    4. There needs to be a culture of feedback where the managers are essentially coaches.

    Great blog.

  3. Melinda Turnley

    April 19, 2016 at 10:39 pm

    Heidi is also exploring issues related to learning–I see some potentially interesting intersections here: http://sites.northwestern.edu/hhartman/2016/04/17/preparing-and-packing-for-a-social-learning-journey/. I shared a couple of sources in a comment on her blog that also resonate with your excellent reflections on self-directed learning. Health care executives cultivating personal knowledge infrastructures to “stay in the know” http://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/staying-in-the-know/, and using diverse Twitter networks to enhance innovation http://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/how-twitter-users-can-generate-better-ideas.

  4. Mercibel Gonzalez

    April 20, 2016 at 3:42 am

    Liz, I really enjoyed reading you post. I work in Consulting and see this dilemma every day both in clients and our own firm (its a small office). As I reflect on the development ownership concept I take a step back and think is this part of our hiring strategy? are we empowering employees enough and giving them guidance on their learning journey? It seems like the organization needs to be clear on what the overall learning and development strategy is and tie in all aspects including: Hiring criteria — Role Expectations & Individual learning goals — On the job learning & Formal training or Continued education — Coaching & Feedback — Learning or development plans & Formal Evaluations. Growth, from a supervision perspective, then could be measured by advancement, improved performance and individual goal attainment. Maybe the employee evaluation process could be redesigned so that they can draft their learning plans (including goals and success metrics) tying their career goals and learning interests vs. company’s expectations and requirements. These plans could be seen as their self directed learning commitment with the organization.

  5. Colin Milligan

    April 22, 2016 at 3:55 pm

    Thanks for this interesting reflection. It is great to see people in organisations recognising the role of the individual in taking responsibility for their learning. You might be interested in reading the work of Knud Illeris (Illeris, K (2003) Workplace Learning and learning theory. Journal of workplace Learning, 15 (4) 167-78. )where he argues for the importance of viewing workplace learning from the perspective of the learner. There’s also a paper by Sitzmann and Ely (Sitzman, T. & Ely, K (2011) A meta-analysis of self-regulated learning in work-related training and educational attainment: what we know and where we need to go. Psychological Bulletin 137,421-442.) focusing on self-regulated learning in the workplace (SRL and SDL are similar concepts). Sitzman and Ely’s review provides an excellent summary of the research in this area. Our own work at Glasgow Caledonian University (see my publications page at http://www.gcu.ac.uk/academy/people/colin-milligan/publications/) has for several years tried to understand how knowledge workers support their emerging learning needs in the energy and finance industries.

    I look forward to following your progress as you explore the individual and organisational perspectives you outline in your post.

  6. Hi Liz,
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on learning in the workplace. I really do think that organizations need to further encourage self-directed learning, especially as it will allow people to receive more specialized training catered towards employees’ professional goals, weaknesses, and interests. Otherwise, they will likely be forced to take generic courses that tick off a check box and cost the organization substantial funding in course development. Of course, one benefit to consider in more formal, internal L&D might be the cross-organizational, in-person connections you might build with people you might otherwise not interact with in your organization, but I think that comes back to a question that has come up frequently in the course – whether online communication and knowledge sharing can reach the same quality as in-person communication. Thanks again for the fantastic post!

  7. Hi Liz,

    Thank you for this thoughtful reflection on the topic of self-directed learning. I especially appreciated you sharing tips on how to begin thinking about one’s personal learning environment and where to start that journey of self-directed learning. I took notes. Looking forward to the final installment.

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About Liz

Liz works in People Operations at a SF-based technology startup.

She is also pursuing her MS from Northwestern focusing on organizational development, organizational and social psychology, learning sciences, strategy, change management, coaching, and design.

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